While other municipalities go it alone under New Jersey’s tradition of home rule, three Atlantic County cities have already collaborated to provide sewer, ambulance, school and court services. And two of the cities have even gingerly broached what is unthinkable in most towns — asking whether police departments could merge.
“We pretty much look for any opportunity to save money without losing services,” Linwood Councilman Alex Marino said. The situation is particularly acute this year, as municipalities face less state aid and a 2 percent cap on property-tax increases.
Northfield, Linwood and Somers Point each have representatives on a shared-services committee that occasionally discusses potential joint ventures.
Northfield and Linwood for decades have shared a sewer department, with Linwood paying Northfield for workers to maintain its sewer pumps and carry out other related duties.
A year ago, the two cities established pacts to combine their court systems. Marino estimates that over six years, Northfield would save more than $273,000 and Linwood more than $425,000 through the use of one judge, one prosecutor, one public defender and one court clerk for both cities.
Linwood Council President Donna Taylor also said Linwood would save about $200,000 per year sharing ambulance service with Northfield when the two reached a joint deal with AtlantiCare more than a year ago for emergency medical services.
Northfield has shared emergency dispatch services with Egg Harbor Township since 1996. Linwood began to do the same with Somers Point at the beginning of this year after dropping its dispatch unit. The combined service needs fewer overall employees. Somers Point looks to save $40,000 this year. Linwood projects a $33,000 savings.
Some local residents say they’re in favor of the moves to consolidate.
“I think due to the times, you have to be,” said Richard Coburn, of Linwood.
“I think it’s good,” Doug Mason, another Linwood resident, said as he sat on a bench on the city’s bike path. He especially thought ambulance service and schools were ripe for regionalization: “It doesn’t make sense for every small community to have their own,” he said.
Linwood and Northfield are more natural partners because they are similar in size, at about 3.5 square miles with about 7,500 residents each.
They are not civil service communities, as Somers Point is, making it easier to make changes involving public employees.
A toolkit of reforms proposed by Gov. Chris Christie is supposed to help municipalities address the civil-service requirements and other budgetary issues, but legislation meant to enact the reforms has yet to be approved.
“There are a lot of endeavors that need to be enacted by the Legislature, or there are municipalities that are going to be between a rock and a hard place,” Marino said.
“With the 2 percent spending cap, I don’t think municipalities will have a choice but to enter into shared services to cut costs and maintain services,” Somers Point Councilman Howard Dill said.
Pressure comes from residents unhappy with rising property taxes. Kathy Coburn said despite the efficiency moves, her property taxes in Linwood increased by $400 this year.
“It didn’t work,” Coburn said as she walked her dog on the bike path recently.
The state Division of Community Affairs, or DCA, doesn’t keep records of shared-services agreements, but a spokeswoman said more municipal officials are calling about shared-services agreements since the introduction of the tax cap.
“Municipalities should seriously consider adopting shared-services agreements,” spokeswoman Lisa Ryan said in an e-mail. “We’ve found that shared services can improve local government efficiency and effectiveness so that operations and tasks are performed with lower cost and greater benefits in the future.”
The DCA provides step-by-step assistance in developing and adopting shared service agreements between cities, she added.
The New Jersey State League of Municipalities advocates service agreements among towns when they cut costs and boost efficiency. The league holds seminars and provides how-to information.
“In these fiscally challenging times, we are seeing more and more discussion by municipal leaders to explore inter-local services, privatizing of services and a very deliberate process of evaluating the services,” said Bill Dressel, the league’s director.
The organization offers resources for establishing shared services and has an adviser who provides ideas and tips to make agreements become reality.
Dressel touted examples such as shared police departments between Washington Borough, a civil service community, and Washington Township, a non-civil service township, in Warren County, and between Swedesboro and Woolwich Township in Gloucester County.
“It depends on the local leaders and whether or not they believe their citizens and taxpayers are willing to have a cooperative agreement,” Dressel said on the success of the deals.
Linwood City Council recently discussed combining police and fire departments with Northfield.
Officials acknowledge the prospect could be difficult. Marino later said it would take time and careful work to consolidate not only personnel but procedures. Linwood routinely relies on attrition to reduce staff, Marino said.
Northfield Mayor Vince Mazzeo said he is open to all options but measures are needed to guard against reductions in service.
The mere fact that police departments now appear in shared-service talks is a major change, Mazzeo said.
“Three or four years ago, I guess you could look at the police, fire and public works as the forbidden fruit as far as a shared service,” Mazzeo said. “But I think the economic situation communities are in now and the 2 percent cap the governor and state have put on us, it’s made it very difficult.”
He recently wrote an article for a New Jersey Conference of Mayors’ publication detailing the development of Northfield shared services.
The concept of sharing services is also in practice in the schools of the three cities, which each have their own school district but feed into Mainland Regional High School.
Linwood Public Schools share a superintendent with Mainland Regional. Similar to the municipalities, representatives from the three K-8 districts, Mainland Regional and Margate School District meet to find shared opportunities for cost savings.
Michael Viscount, a co-chairman of the committee and Northfield school board member, said the possibilities range from shared health benefits to curriculum so students are equally prepared for entering the high school.
“We have a heightened awareness of the need and desire” for shared opportunities, Viscount said of the group’s recent drive to identify possibilities.
They set a goal of having agreements in place by July 1, given that such deals take time to put in place, Viscount said.
His local municipal officials can relate.
Marino said the joint court system between Linwood and Northfield took seven to eight months to complete.
Towns also have to determine in various cases whether forming a cooperative with other cities will pay off.
Somers Point City Administrator Wes Swain used trash pickup as an example when explaining that not all shared services can reduce the amount of work or the cost. The amount of trash that needs to be picked up does not change regardless if the work is done by a one municipality or crews from several cities, Swain said.
“You have to look at each venture and see if it makes sense,” Swain said.
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